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Turkey’s 'Rocker Imam' inspires Turks

Turkey’s "Rocker Imam" Ahmet Muhsin Tuzer, who combines Sufi lyrics with guitar solos, signals the niche in Turkish society for a more modern and cosmopolitan feeling of Islam.

In May 2013, the Turkish media highlighted an unusual religious figure: Ahmet Muhsin Tuzer, who is a full-time imam at a small mosque in southwestern Turkey, but also a part-time singer in a rock band. Dubbed the “Rocker Imam,” Tuzer, 44, quickly became famous but also controversial. The Directorate of Religious Affairs, the state ministry that controls all mosques and employs all imams, soon initiated an internal “investigation” about his work. Meanwhile, the fame of the Rocker Imam spread, leading to slick video clips and concerts in Turkey and even New York City. Just last week, a novel based on his life story, titled "Rock’n Imam: An Unusual Life," was published by writer Selcuk Alkan.

Tuzer spoke to Al-Monitor last weekend in Istanbul not only about his life and work but also what it means to be a religious figure and musician in Turkey. While the Rocker Imam may be a disturbing figure for some of Turkey’s self-declared “conservative” or “Islamist” Muslims, he is an inspiring icon for others who are open to more liberal voices of Islam.

Tuzer’s story began in Kas, which is a coastal town that borders Turkey’s touristy Mediterranean shore. He was born and raised there, and still serves as the imam of the small mosque in a village called Pinarbasi. He went to the “imam-hatip” school in the same area, which is the government-funded school system that educates future imams and “muezzins,” the reciters of the ezan, or the call to prayer. In the late 1990s, he briefly worked in Istanbul as the muezzin of the famous Sultanahmet Mosque, a position he acquired apparently thanks to his powerful voice.

That was the time Tuzer also met his future wife, Oana Mara, an immigrant from Romania. They married in 1999, and she remained a church-going Christian for many years, before willingly converting to Islam. They made an unusual couple, for sure, but not an un-Islamic one: Islamic law allows Muslim men to marry Christian or Jewish (but not pagan) women. In the meantime, Tuzer remained an unusual cleric, wearing jeans, sporting long hair and riding a Kawasaki motorcycle.

In 2010, back in Kas, Tuzer started performing with his rock band Firock, which in Arabic means "in rock.” Their hit song “Come to God" combined Sufi lyrics with guitar solos. When the media discovered the band in 2013, Tuzer became an overnight celebrity, but also a bone of contention. For more conservative minds, the infusion of Islam and rock music was simply deviation from Islamic culture and surrender to Western intoxication. Tuzer said he was sad to face such negative comments, and even some death threats, on online forums. On the Web page of an ultra-conservative Islamic community led by Mahmut Ustaosmanoglu (Efendi), he was loathed as a “fake imam” and his work was depicted as borderline heresy.

Probably such reactions were the underlying reason for the Directorate of Religious Affairs to open an administrative “investigation” on the Rocker Imam in September 2013. Eight months later, however, only a “warning” was issued, and not about his music but the comments he made in the media on the investigation itself. Tuzer thinks that there were probably some people in the Directorate of Religious Affairs who would prefer to see him fired, but happily said that the very head of the institution, Mehmet Gormez, supported and protected him.

Meanwhile, the Tuzer has received widespread sympathy from the more secular part of Turkish society. “I have received so many positive messages from atheists, deists, not-so-observant Muslims and Ataturkists,” Tuzer said. In other words, he gathered more sympathy from the part of Turkish society that does not call itself “conservative” or “Islamist.”

This is the case, for the part of Turkish society that is often referred to as “secular” is actually considerably religious, just not as intensely so and traditional as the “conservatives.” The average “secular” Turk, in other words, would not wear a hijab or frequent the mosque every day, and would probably not shy away from alcohol. But they would also refrain from drinking throughout the holy month of Ramadan, perhaps even observe the Ramadan fast, and not miss prayers on religious holidays. They would also be more accustomed and sympathetic to Western tastes, including rock music.

The Rocker Imam seems to be a figure who appeals to these not-so-conservative-but-religious Turks, and even fully to those who are nonreligious but appreciate spirituality. Tuzer's lyrics are filled with references of the love for and compassion of God, which has more appeal to these Turks than the fear from and wrath of God. Other modern Islamic figures who have gained popularity in the past decade — such as Sufi sage Cemalnur Sargut, philosopher-theologian Caner Taslaman and activist and thinker Ihsan Eliacik — also point to the same niche in Turkish society for a more liberal and cosmopolitan interpretation of Islam.

But what about the domination of political Islam in Turkey, under the ruling Justice and Development Party, and its empowerment of the conservatives? This a current reality, but it is probably also a prelude to a post-conservative phase in Turkish culture. Because while the conservatives are now at the peak of their power, they are also putting many people off by their growingly bitter, crude and arrogant style of ruling. Soon there will be a time that even some of them will be worn out by the Islamic rhetoric of triumph and demonization, and will look for some peace of mind and a less black-and-white view of the world. The Rocker Imam, and other examples of synthesis of Islam and modernity, will be out there to suggest an alternative.